Chestertown Council hears community’s concerns over racial incidents at Washington College, March 2, 2020

A series of racial incidents at Washington College that  began last October brought the community together in frustration, as well as resolve, at a meeting of the Chestertown Town Council on Monday.

The most recent incident at WC occurred on Feb. 16 when a dark gray Chevrolet Suburban drove through the campus waving a TRUMP flag–with occupants shouting the N-word several times at two black female students. The suspects have been identified and the Chestertown Police Department is investigating.

In a similar incident on Nov. 22, a white male, 17, was referred to the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

“I want these students…and people of color in our community to know that these racial incidents, clearly meant to intimidate, are not acceptable to these elected officials, and we will do everything in our power to deal with this in a timely manner–using any resources and whatever extent of the law the town can use,” said Mayor Chris Cerino to a packed meeting on the second floor of Town Hall.

Ward 3 Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver, the council’s only black member, said that the rash of racial incidents at WC has brought to light the life experiences of blacks in Kent County.

“Now we have an opportunity to bring people together and open up a dialogue about what we can do to make change in this community,” he said.

Ward 2 Councilman Tom Herz said he wanted to “publicly acknowledge that there is a problem in Chestertown and Kent County” and that he was eager to work with the college, the council and law enforcement to “alleviate” the issues.

Paris Mercier, past president of the WC’s Black Student Union, identified the racial incidents as “hate crimes.”

She said the incidents escalated after the cancellation last fall of a student performance of The Foreigner, a comedy by playwright Larry Shue that depicts villains in KKK costumes.

Mercier said the incidents forced black students to “maintain a heightened sense of awareness when walking to and from any part of the campus once the sun goes down.”

“There is a shared sense of trauma that has occurred within our community,” she said. “Our anger and frustration we are experiencing doesn’t end with the things we personally experience at Washington College, but extends to students at the high school.”

“We implore the school system to listen without already having the answer,” she continued. “And we implore the college to continue to open their doors to the idea of building bridges with the local schools to reconcile the crimes that have been committed.”

“We cannot keep putting the children on the front lines to fight this battle alone,” she said. “It’s time as adults that we all step in to protect them in the ways that they deserve to be protected.”

Washington College President Kurt Landgraf said his biggest concern was for the safety of the students. He said racial incidents have occurred since he became President of the college three years ago.

“This just didn’t start happening,” he said. “This has been happening the entire three years that I’ve been here: drive-bys, people in pickup trucks screaming at our students.”

He echoed Mercier that the incidents were heightened after the cancellation of The Foreigner.

“When these things start to escalate it’s not a long jump from words to physical violence, and that scares me beyond anything else,” Landgraf said.

He said, unlike five years ago, the college’s minority population has grown to 20 percent, and that parents at a recent admissions event were overwhelmingly concerned about safety on campus. He said fears of parents could hurt enrollment and the future of the town.

“If Washington college doesn’t thrive…this city will not be the same place five years from now,” he said.

Rebecca Murphy, a nine-year resident of Chestertown, said she’s experienced racism in her time here.

“It hasn’t been people throwing rocks at my house or driving by and saying awful things to me, but it has been persistent and unpleasant and very difficult to confront,” she said.

She said it wasn’t the responsibility of minorities to educate whites about racism and that white people have a moral obligation to educate themselves and acknowledge the feelings of those who experience racism.

Elena Deanda-Camacho, Associate Professor of Spanish and the Director of the Black Studies Program at Washington College said young whites were being radicalized through the Internet and their phones.

“The amount of exposure they have to the radical movement is…right in front of us,”  she said. “There are kids being radicalized as we speak.”

She said the issue was beyond just black and white.

“The Hispanic population is all over Chestertown, all over the county,” she said. “They’re doing the crops right now, they’re cleaning houses, they’re making your food.”

“They’re not here [tonight] and they won’t be here because they are very scared,” she continued.

“The people who think they are powerful enough to attack my African-American students, feel powerful enough to scream at Hispanic students. They feel they are powerful enough to scream at my gay students; they feel powerful enough to scream at my transgender students. They can really move their target to different minorities.”

Bishop Charles Tilghman of the Kent NAACP, said he was harassed when he started his church and said the community was not doing enough to combat racism.

“I know what racism is and we are not dealing with it,” he said. ‘We have to do more than talk.”

“It shouldn’t get to the point where somebody gets shot or killed, I pray that never happens.”

No one mentioned President Trump by name during the meeting, but after, many audience members expressed their belief that Trump’s “hateful rhetoric” has fanned the flames racism and fueled the radicalization of young white males—fueling a rise in hate crimes and other racial incidents.

Originally published in print, March 4, 2020